Takeaways: Iowa defensive line injury-riddled, Epenesa excitement and Jewell gets engaged

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football team had four experienced defensive linemen returning this season.

But for now, at least, that number has been reduced to one: Parker Hesse.

At the Hawkeyes’ fourth spring practice Wednesday, the beginning of which was open to reporters, Matt Nelson was reduced to riding a stationary bicycle, his right foot in a large gray immobilizing boot. Nathan Bazata didn’t practice, as he continues to give time for a lingering ankle injury to heal. Anthony Nelson wandered the sideline in sweats, not a uniform.

Defensive line coach Reese Morgan, questioned about the absences later, wasn’t prepared to give a detailed injury report.

“You guys saw it. I just didn’t want to go down that road yet,” Morgan said of Matt Nelson. “As soon as he’s been cleared by trainers and doctors, he’s ready to go.”

Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson celebrates a forced fumble during the Hawkeyes' game against Miami (Ohio) at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016.

Anthony Nelson is listed as the starting left defensive end, with Matt (no relation) as his backup. Bazata, a senior, is the right tackle. That’s three big holes to fill in the Hawkeye defensive front this spring.

“It’s a time to learn, so it’s a great opportunity for the young guys to get in there and get more reps, more experience,” said Hesse, a junior who starts at right end.

At the end positions, that would be junior Sam Brincks and redshirt freshmen Chauncey Golston and Brandon Simon. Inside, sophomore Cedrick Lattimore is starting at one spot, with senior Jake Hulett taking Bazata’s place and sophomore Brady Reiff also pushing for playing time.

Morgan said Matt Nelson approached him after last season ended and volunteered to shift to tackle if that was best for the team. He started every game at the end of last season.

“You just love that attitude,” Morgan said. “He has a couple of snaps inside. He’s played outside. The plan would be to utilize him in both positions.”

Whenever Nelson is healthy, that is. The concern about moving him inside is how much leverage the 6-foot-8, 285-pounder would muster against shorter, stouter blockers without much room to roam.

“Being the low man is always going to be something,” Morgan acknowledged. “But the one thing about Matt is he’s got a lot of pride. He’s very intelligent. He understands leverage. And even at the defensive end position, he was able to have great leverage — vertical leverage — and get under the pad of the tight end or tackle.

“He creates a lot of frustrations for an offensive lineman, and if he uses that length consistently, boy, he’s going to be hard to block wherever he plays.”

Morgan said Bazata’s health problems date to a high ankle sprain he suffered in an Oct. 22 loss to Wisconsin. He played after that but was never 100 percent. His prognosis for spring also is unknown.

What about the next big thing?

Morgan said the focus for spring remains developing the players that are in camp. But there’s no secret that five-star defensive end recruit A.J. Epenesa will land on campus in June and will likely force his way into the Hawkeyes’ plans up front.

“In the back of your mind, when you talk to people, I think he’s such a unique athlete from a physical standpoint, and his maturity level is pretty strong,” Morgan said of Epenesa, a 6-5, 275-pound star-in-the-making out of Edwardsville (Ill.) High School. “So does he have the ability? We’ll find out for sure in August, but we certainly think he does.”

Jewell is fully engaged

Senior linebacker Josey Jewell attended Iowa’s Pro Day on Monday and watched as his former teammates tried to impress NFL scouts. But he said he never thought about the possibility that it could have been him out there dashing and leaping.

The Hawkeyes’ leading tackler the past two seasons, Jewell opted to return and play his final college season instead of testing the NFL waters. And he’s at peace with that decision.

“You set up for playing four years at a college. You give them your word you’re going to play there, so you might as well stay there,” Jewell said.

But was he good enough to play professionally?

“I have no clue. People would have to tell me that. I don’t know how I felt about that. I know I can get better with another year (in college). It’s definitely to my advantage,” Jewell said.

“Everybody has to prove something, whether it be how fast you are, how well you can read plays or how well you can take on blocks. I think those are all cumulative effect what I need to do.”

Jewell has little left to prove to his head coach, Kirk Ferentz, who said last week that he would limit his star middle linebacker’s repetitions this spring. So far, that is happening to an extent, Jewell admitted.

“Just one here and there. Sometime at the end of a team period, they might take me out,” he said.

“I’m fine with taking all the reps. Whatever they want me to do, I’ll definitely do, but I like playing football. That’s why I’m here.

“I understand the background behind it. I understand what they’re trying to do. You don’t want to hurt any guys during this time period, but you also want to get everybody better, so it’s a crucial time.”

Jewell took one key rep at Kinnick Stadium this spring when he set up a midfield marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Micole Lansing. She said yes. A wedding date has not been set yet.

Safeties on a mission

Brandon Snyder and Miles Taylor return to give Iowa an experienced starting combination at safety after taking the bulk of the snaps a year ago. Taylor, a senior, missed some time late in the season with injuries, losing his job to then-senior Anthony Gair. Snyder, a junior, was a first-year starter who showed steady improvement.

“There’s a lot more communication,” Taylor said of the difference between last spring and this one. “Last year, I think we did a pretty good job, but now, I think, this year, we’re just, like, molded in together. It feels a lot easier.”

Taylor gave Snyder the nod as being the bigger hitter of the two. Snyder laughed later when he heard that.

“It depends on the day,” said Snyder, who, at 6-1 and 214 pounds, is three inches taller and 11 pounds heavier than Taylor.

But Snyder was happy to take on that title.

“Iowa’s typically had hard-hitting safeties, so that’s just to carry on that tradition,” Snyder said after making 85 tackles a year ago. “That’s something that’s important to us, and it’s fun, too. Obviously, anytime you take a good shot on somebody, it feels pretty good. And we use that energy for sure.”

Snyder had three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles a year ago. But he wasn’t content with those numbers and is working on being even more of a ballhawk this fall.

“Just trying to be around the ball more. Just trying to make more plays,” he said of his No. 1 goal. “I think that comes with being more prepared, seeing things better and just playing faster.”

Other injuries

The defensive line wasn’t the only unit with a reduction in healthy bodies Wednesday — linebackers coach Seth Wallace said brothers Ben and Nick Niemann were held out of different portions of the practice “just because they’ve got a couple nagging injuries.” Ben, a senior, is the usual starter at outside linebacker.

Reporters also observed that tight end Nate Wieting and cornerback Cedric Boswell appeared to be rehabbing injuries. Wieting was using crutches.

In addition, redshirt freshman defensive back Joe Argo is no longer on the team. Argo was a walk-on out of Davenport Assumption.